Lead climbing is a type of climbing that involves drilling bolts into the rock. It’s the simple act of climbing with a rope and clipping into fixed protection along its route to avoid falling. Climbers' harnesses are equipped with quickdraws that clip one side to the bolt and the other to the rope.
Lead climbing can be done both outdoors and indoors. While indoors, the quickdraws are already pre-hung and safety verified, and the bolts are just around a meter apart. When it's outdoors, the bolts might be old, rusty, or installed wrongly, so you must decide whether to trust them.
Whether it’s indoors or outdoors, lead climbing will test your physical and mental boundaries. It is undoubtedly the most popular type of rock climbing, as it made its first appearance in the 2020 Olympics!
Lead Climbing Terms
As it should, anytime you're about learning any new activity, one of the first things to learn is the terminology used in that field.
This refers to a robust, stitched sling connecting two carabiners. The rope is clipped into the lower carabiner, and the other carabiner is fastened to the bolt, allowing the sling to dangle freely. Outdoors, you must bring your own quickdraw. When indoors, the quickdraws will be pre-installed and cannot be removed.
An oval-shaped metal that opens with a little gate. Some quickdraws screw close, while most snap shut after a rope is pushed in.
This is the metal rod that is fixed into the wall. Outdoors, a hole is drilled first, then an expansion bolt or a glue-in bolt is installed. They're attached to T Nuts and joists behind the wall when used indoors. Most people refer to the entire bolt, nut, and hanger assembly as a "bolt."
This is the portion where you clip a quickdraw to. The bolt with a nut and washer secures the protruding piece of metal to the wall. In other cases, such as with glue-in bolts, the hanger is built into the bolt.
Anchor and Chains
This is where the climber clips in to complete and lower the body. Usually, two bolts are connected by a short chain, with a ring or carabiner to lower through. "Clipping the chains" is slang for "clipping into the anchor," which denotes that the route is complete.
The person belaying is on the ground and, when necessary, employs a belay device to give rope to the climber. They also prevent the rope from pulling through and catching the climber when they fall.
Clipping a quickdraw into the hanger or a rope into a quickdraw is an example of clipping. Clipping, or the clip, refers to inserting the quickdraw and rope.
When climbers clip the rope, the rope leading to them from the carabiner should be facing forward. If the rope is back clipped, a fall can cause the rope to pull down on the carabiner and open it!
This term refers to pulling the rope from under the previous quickdraw to clip the next one. The rope resembles a Z, which must be adjusted because it can become quite unsafe.
How to Learn Lead Climbing
Start in the Gym
Begin in the gym with a "monkey-tail," a small length of rope attached to your harness as if you were leading. You top-rope the climb instead of leading it and practice clipping the monkey-tail through each fixed draw.
Take your gym's lead class and pass the lead test once your monkey game is established. Next, practice the effective art of clipping, taking commands, relaxing, being calm, and accepting whippers.
When you’re climbing routes with a lot of crimps, slopes, side pulls, and other unusual holds, it's a good idea to top-rope your first sport and trad climbing outside and practice your monkey-tail skills.
Read more about the essential gear you need as a climber here!
When going outdoors, make sure to choose routes a couple of grades below your toproping limit for your first outdoor leads. You can also choose a route you've top-roped multiple times.
As you gain confidence, stick to sport routes with a few bolts, that way your line is clear and your pro is already in position on bolted routes. As a climber, your job is to look at the wall and make connections. Carry a few long runners or extra-long quickdraws in case the route deviates and you need to lessen rope drag.
Remember that bolts are frequently placed exactly at hard moves and run outs are often in simpler sections when the bolts are far apart or the climbing is steep.
How to Lead Climb Like a Pro
In learning how to lead climb like a pro, you need to start with the basics first. This means that you need to be familiar with the basics of rock climbing.
The most crucial aspects of lead climbing are performed on the ground. Before beginning a route, the lead climber must tie into one end of a rope with their preferred knot, either a bowline with a back-up or a double-figure eight.
The rope is designed specifically for rock climbing. Climbing ropes are dynamic, which means that they can stretch with weight. This is important because, rather than the human body receiving the majority of the force of a fall, the rope can help disperse it!
On a static rope, a fall of three or more feet can result in catastrophic spine injury. Climbing ropes are extremely robust and can withstand the power of multiple falls. They are also available in lengths that are long enough to cross the heights of sport climbing routes.
If the climber is outdoors, they must attach the required number of quickdraws to their harness. Counting bolts with one's own eyes or reading a guidebook can help establish the number of quickdraws required.
Anchor links should be placed at the end of every bolted sport climbing route. Two bolts with hangers and a set of chains dangling from each hanger are typical anchors. To account for clipping into anchors, two quickdraws should always be brought.
Remember that there should be two bolts at anchors instead of one. That way, the other can still support if one fails. Although the chances of a bolt failing are extremely slim, it is always a good idea to be safe. The climber should always double-check themselves once they're tied in and have extra quickdraws.
A mock lead is a fantastic alternative for first-time lead climbers. It's about climbing a route on top rope while concurrently leading up with another rope. This allows you to concentrate on setting up gear, clipping bolts, and handling the rope on lead, safely knowing that you have a top rope to catch you if you fall.
For more information, you can refer to this video on how to lead climb.
Lead Climbing Risks
Lead climbing or learning how to lead climb isn't as dangerous as it might seem. However, for starters, you need to understand some important tips before engaging in climbing.
Learning the risks doesn’t take the risks away, but it does make you better equipped to deal with any risks you might encounter.
It's hard to eliminate all the risks from lead climbing; however, there are actions you can take to significantly reduce them.
- Get Trained Properly: In lead climbing, both the climber and the belayer must be properly trained.Get an Experienced Belayer: In lead climbing, the belayer is quite important. Only climb with a belaying partner you can trust, and who is good at belaying.
- Consider the Complications: At every step along the route, both the climber and the belayer must consider the complications of a fall.
- Don't Go in Over Your Head: Climbers frequently challenge themselves with more challenging lead climbs, which is part of the fun. But, you have to work up to it. When you're first starting, go easy on yourself and start with simple routes.
- Inspect the Equipment: Inspect the bolts and gear positions to verify that they are safe for you.
Learning to Fall
Taking controlled falls in low-risk areas while wearing sturdy gear can be completely safe and beneficial to your confidence and competence. Sport climbers are notorious for taking several leaders' falls while working out the moves on a difficult route. You'll be able to climb harder if you're comfortable taking a fall because you trust your gear and your belayer.
For a lead belayer, falling in a controlled environment is also beneficial. This allows the belayer to focus on controlling rope slack and catching falls.
We hope that you now understand the basic aspects of lead climbing. First off, make sure you learn the terminology and put it into practice. Next, choose routes that align with your skill level. Lastly, ensure that your belayer is trustworthy and skillful enough to handle you.
With all that in mind, you should be having fun lead climbing in no time!